Seaborne trade between Iran and Russia via the Caspian Sea, a suspected route for weapons shipments, is increasing and ships plying the trade are routinely doing so with Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals turned off, Lloyd’s List Intelligence data shows.
A notable increase in shipments began in July, just at the point US officials began to warn that Iran would be supplying several hundred unmanned aerial vehicles to Russia for military use.
While the Caspian Sea is landlocked, vessels around 150 m and 5,000 tonnes can travel between the Caspian Sea and Sea of Azov through the Volga and Don rivers and Volga-Don Canal.
It is a route that security analysts believe is being used for the transport of weaponry given the low risk of seizure or interference.
Analysis of Lloyd’s List Intelligence AIS vessel tracking data shows that around 50 ships made the journey via the Caspian Sea in July, up from 30 in June. However, there is also a suspected increase in shipments being made that are not being tracked by AIS.
AIS gaps occurring in the Caspian Sea were unusually high in September, analysis by Lloyd’s List shows, totalling 440. Some 278 were recorded in August, and 343 in September of last year.
The figures do not include AIS gaps below the threshold of 30 hours. There are several reasons for ships to switch off AIS, including transmission or safety issues, but it is commonly used as a tactic to obfuscate journey origins and destinations, as well as other illicit activity.
Gaps recorded along the Don and Volga rivers have also increased over the past several months, with record-highs in September and October.
Of the 522 gaps logged in September, 172 were related to trade originating or destined for Caspian Sea ports. In October there were 454 instances of vessels going dark, with 184 of these directly relating to Caspian Sea trade.
Security experts such as Martin Kelly, the lead intelligence analyst at EOS Risk Group, say the increasing shipments combined with rising AIS gaps suggests that the route, which provides the necessary lift capacity and mitigates the risk of interception, is increasingly being used to tranship oil and weaponry.
Iranian kamikaze drones were first used against Ukraine on September 13, according to Defense Intelligence of Ukraine.
Ukraine and the US say drones were acquired from Iran during the summer months.
Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said his country has delivered drones to Russia but claims this was prior to the start of the invasion and he denies continued supply.
The Defense Intelligence of Ukraine said in a Telegram post on November 7 that Russia plans to purchase ballistic missiles from Iran, which will be imported via air and Caspian Sea ports.
Further, the Ukrainian intelligence unit is expecting a large shipment of drones to arrive at the Russian port of Astrakhan in early November.